Travels with Epicurus

A charming meditation on the wonders of old age.

Travels with Epicurus

I’d previously read Mr Klein’s wonderful little book of philosophy jokes — Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar — but didn’t realize until halfway through that it was by the same author.

A running theme of Travels with Epicurus is that too many folks miss out on the charms of old age by trying to stay forever young. Mr Klein grabbed my attention with an anecdote about his dentist telling him that, unless he got seven implants to replace all of his lower front teeth, he would end up with an old man’s smile. Mr Klein decided that, since he actually is an old man, an old man’s smile seems perfectly appropriate and saved his money. Having been on the receiving end of countless dentists’ promises that, if only I gave them $8000 my life would be so much better, I decided that Mr Klein was a philosopher I could learn from.

The book is part reverie on the delights of just hanging out with other old folk on a little Greek island and part review of what philosophers throughout history, primarily Epicurus but also Sinatra and other modern philosophers, have had to say about growing older—the gist being that you should just slow down and enjoy old age and not cling on to lost youth. 

Denying that we are old is certainly not close, in order of magnitude, to denying that we are mortal, yet the two denials are clearly related.
[…] 
Because, what happens then is that we proceed directly from the “forever young” stage of life to old old age, missing forever the chance at being a fulfilled old man “docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.” We lose out for eternity on what I am beginning to agree with Epicurus is the pinnacle of life.

There’s a lovely little story of four old men sitting in their Greek taverna and admiring a beautiful young woman approaching down the steps. In the #metoo era, we might condemn them as dirty old men but, Mr Klein says no.

He and his friend are again seated at their table, chatting amiably, so far exclusively about the weather and what it portends. Then quite abruptly, they all go quiet. To a man, they are gazing up at the top step of the stone stairs that lead down from the coast path and past the taverna’s terrace. A young woman has appeared there, and the wind is pressing her blouse and skirt against her splendid, voluptuous body. For a moment, she pauses there, perhaps enjoying the warm breeze, but more likely enjoying the effect that she is having on the men looking up at her.

Mr Klein uses this story to riff on the idea that the forever young set, with their implants and their Cialis, are clinging to the obsessions of youth whereas the comfortably old are free to enjoy beauty without the distractions of desire. He quotes Mr Sinatra’s wistful “I See It Now”:

That world I knew is lost to me
Loves have come and gone
The years go racing by
I live as best I can
And all at once I know it means the making of a man
I see it now
I see it now

More on this theme from “This Is All I Ask”, from the same album, September of My Years.

Beautiful girls,
Walk a little slower
When you walk by me
Lingering sunsets,
Stay a little longer with the lonely sea.

It’s lovely little book. Don’t expect fireworks—just warm, witty reflections on life from Mr Klein, Frank Sinatra and Epicurus.

He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it is passed.

— Epicurus

Brexit is like a game of Tiddlywinks

Choose your metaphors carefully.

Brexit is like a game of tiddlywinks

We played a game two and a half years ago and you lost. That’s why you want another game. Then what? Best of three?

But you cheated last time!

So did you!

But I won the previous game 50 years ago!

Brexit is like choosing where to go on holiday

We agreed we were going to Great Yarmouth this year!

But you promised me palm trees! Can’t we look at the catalogue again? We can still get our deposit back.

We’re going to Great Yarmouth. I don’t care if it is raining all week.

Brexit is like an open marriage

My friend Michael says I’ll be free to date other people. Like Scarlett Johansson.

Or Pierce Brosnan.

We can still see each other.

Brexit is like choosing from a menu

This chicken is still raw!

I’m sorry sir, but you ordered the chicken. If you eat your chicken you can order another meal later.

Brexit is like walking out on a marriage

We’ve been happily married for many years now. Well, mostly happy. I hate it when you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle. I want a divorce.

But why? Is it because I let those homeless people sleep on the couch?

I need to control my own toothpaste.

You can have your own toothpaste, darling. You don’t need to leave to have your own toothpaste.

Leave means leave. We decided that two and a half years ago.

You decided that! I didn’t!

Brexit is like buying a car

If we tell them what we really want, we won’t get as good a deal. We have to walk away with no car to show them how serious we are. They’ll come running after us. You’ll see. They need this deal more than we do.

Brexit is like a divorce

I want two of the children and the dog. And half the Abba albums.

I don’t even like Abba. Can’t we stay friends? You can visit the children whenever you like.

Where will you sleep tonight? Please don’t go!

No! That’s it! I’m walking away with no deal.

Don’t come running after me!

Photo Credits

Tiddlywinks by KaptainKobold on Flickr and Hannes Grobe on Wikimedia.

Car Shopping by Pictures of Money on Flickr.

Scarlett Johansson by Rogelio A. Galaviz on Flickr.

Dinner Menu from aposac on Pixabay.

Family Torn Apart geralt on Pixabay.

Great Yarmouth by Airman Dillon Johnston

Lonely Man by Jim Jackson on Pexels.

Brexit Despair and Brexit Hope

The hardest thing to bear in all of this is that no one is allowed to tell the truth: not May, not Corbyn, not the People’s Vote People, not the Daily Mail, not the BBC, not even the Guardian editorial writers. It’s like everyone watched A Few Good Men and learned the wrong lesson from it.

If I were Theresa May and more worried about the fate of my party than the fate of my country, I would make some cosmetic change to the Withdrawal Agreement (like, make the backstop orange instead of green or whatever) then try to hold on to this stalemate until the dying light at the end of March before making one desperate plea for My Deal or Deal. It might just work.

If she does anything sensible like making a deal with senior parliamentarians that results in a slightly softer Brexit, she is finished as a politician and the Tories are finished as a party.

If I were an ERG Brexiter, I would dance along with May’s Kabuki dance. Best case: May fails, we exit with no deal and one of my friends gets to be the next Prime Minister. Worst case, we get Brexit with an Orange Backstop and one of my friends gets to be the next Prime Minister.

I don’t know what I would do if I were Corbyn. I shot my bolt yesterday and missed the target. Perhaps my next move in this 11 dimensional chess game is to go all People’s Vote? Or perhaps I want a Brexit and all its horrible consequences that I can forever blame on the Tories.

I think the People’s Vote people are wounded now too. I was one of these people the day before yesterday but the storyline has moved on. There was a good case for a three way vote: May’s Deal, No Deal or No Brexit but May’s Deal is no longer a credible choice.

If I were a country-over-party tory like, maybe, Ken Clarke, I would try to finagle a No Confidence vote that results in a coalition government. This coalition would amend May’s deal to keep us in the Customs Union and call it done. I think it would pass. Does anyone not wearing a top hat and a monocle believe we could make better trade deals than the ones we already have? The politicians in Westminster should just get on with it.

If I were to wish my biggest wish, the Labour Party would (somehow) fight a general election with not-Corbyn at the helm. The manifesto would be 1) Cancel A50. 2) Commission a panel of experts (or a People’s Assembly, whatever) to design a proper, unicorn-free Brexit 3) Put the result to a three-way People’s Vote: deal vs no deal vs remain. If it’s my lucky day, Remain would win but I’d accept any of the outcomes.

At my most cynical, I’d appeal to all those people that the BBC keeps rounding up for their sham Vox Pop sessions and, after they had agreed that they are all fed up with hearing about Brexit, I’d tell them that if we just withdraw Article 50, we need never mention Brexit ever again.

When do we forget?

Mrs Clown and I attended the Remembrance Day parade in Bristol yesterday. My nan and grandad took me to my first parade in Footscray in, maybe, 1972. I was in the first rank of the Bexleyheath parade as a Sea Cadet in 1980 and marched with the grown up soldiers and sailors on Plymouth Hoe in 1982.

Aftermath (1919)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same,—and War’s a bloody game….
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench,—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads, those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1886-1967

Despite what the Bristol Post says, there were very few young people at the parade yesterday, other than small children with their parents and the cadets marching in the parade. I wonder how long these parades will continue?

Image may contain: 8 people, crowd

When we recited the Lord’s Prayer, I was struck by the fact that everyone around me knew the words too. How long before that, too, is forgotten?

Anglicans add the line “for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory forever and ever” to the end of the Lord’s Prayer but a recent survey by British Social Attitudes says that “Only 3% of adults under 24 describe themselves as Anglican”. Maybe Christianity will last for ever, but maybe not that bit of the prayer.

Image may contain: 7 people, people standing and wedding

We sang Carols at the tree lighting ceremony in Clifton Village last Wednesday. They handed out hymn sheets but everyone already knew the words. I saw no young people though either despite the thousands of students who live in Clifton. How long before Carols are forgotten too?

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, christmas tree, night, tree, crowd, plant and outdoor

I believe it was the battles of the Somme and Verdun and Passchendaele that precipitated the long slide in religious belief in Europe. When the Church, all over Europe, gave so much support for the most atrocious war in all history, it’s hard to imagine that its moral authority could continue forever. Maybe it’s right that we should forget those terrible wars now. After all, we’ve had more than 70 years of peace now.

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The European Union has its roots in an effort to bind together the French and German economies after World War 2 so that these terrible tragedies might never happen again. Churchill, having seen a few wars first-hand himself, was a supporter. Too many people have forgotten this and now a handful of Tory opportunists have persuaded them that we don’t need this security any more. Across the Atlantic, the American president is doing his best to undermine the institutions that have kept us safe and prosperous for so long. Half the country thinks this will somehow Make America Great Again.

At the Remembrance ceremonies in France, Macron and Merkel held hands in a symbolic rejection of past enmities. The American president, famously, chose not attend the remembrance of America’s contribution to the end of World War I.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and outdoor

As these awful conflicts fade out of memory, it becomes easier to think that they’ll never happen again, even as we dismantle the institutions that made them stop.

“So now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving their dreams and past glory,
I see the old men all tired, stiff and sore
Those forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question.
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call,
But year after year, the numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all.”
—Eric Bogle

Photo Credits:

 

The End of Political Science

The core idea is sound.
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According to the author of The Three Languages of Politics, there are three separate buckets of political thinking in the USA: a libertarian bucket, a progressive bucket and a conservative bucket. For each bucket, there is a corresponding axis along which we evaluate political ideas. For example, a libertarian will evaluate an idea based on whether it increases or reduces freedom; a conservative will evaluate the same idea based on whether it conserves or imperils some important aspect of civilization; and a progressive will evaluate the idea based on whether it helps or harms some oppressed minority.

Most of us fall into one of these buckets and, while we are very quick to evaluate ideas using our **own** axis as a guide, we are cognitively unable to grasp that people in other buckets use a different axis. This causes us to dismiss those people as stupid or wilfully obstinate.

This basic idea calls to mind George Lakoff’s Moral Politics and Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations.
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In Lakoff’s version, we evaluate political ideas using one of two metaphors according to whether we are conservative or liberal.

In Haidt’s version, we all share six moral “senses” that are activated in different proportions in liberals and conservatives. The details are a bit different but the advice is the same: we can be more effective politically if make more of an effort to understand our opponent’s point of view.


So far so good. We could all benefit from understanding what our opponents are saying and from learning to make arguments using our opponent’s axis for reference. My problem with the book is that I know of almost no one who fits into one of the author’s buckets. I certainly don’t fit in any of them.

I know that progressives have a disproportionate influence in academia and in the Democratic Party. I mostly know this because they terrify the conservative writers that I read on the web. In real life, I know just a handful. The left-leaning people that I meet in real life are either freedom-loving liberals who believe society should be organised to be fairer to the disadvantaged or people who picked Team Blue early in life and buy whatever the Democrats are selling in any particular election.

Living in Silicon Valley, I know a LOT of libertarians. Even the liberals are libertarians. However, I know vanishingly few people who believe that the US government is a greater threat to liberty than the corporations who own our media (social or otherwise), our food supply, most of the land and wealth in the United States and, even, the politicians who run the goverment.

On the evening of the last election, a prominent conservative personality said he had always believed that most Republic voters were conservative but “it turns out that there are only about 200 of us and we all know each other”. The Republicans stopped being conservative many years ago.

The people I know who voted for Trump were either a) Christians who are afraid that atheists and progressives want to eliminate Christianity from the public square (I think they are right to be afraid), b) Make America Great Again types who want to return America to its former glory and think that a swamp creature is just what we need to drain that swamp and (most of all) c) people who picked Team Red early in life and have been persuaded that Team Blue is out to destroy everything they cherish or d) Very Rich People who think their wealth is safer with Republican hands on the levers of government (totals may add to more than 100%).

I do know a very small number of conservatives but they all started voting Democrat in about 2008 about 4 years after the Republic Party lost its moral compass entirely.

To summarise: full marks to the author for encouraging us to try to understand our opponents views but I’m afraid his buckets do carry even a passing resemblance to real life voters.

The author, a libertarian, proves his own thesis by entirely failing to understand the political views of everyone who is not in his bucket. As to understanding libertarians, I’ve found it much easier to predict their views since I started to think of them as “Propertarians”. They don’t value **liberty** so much as they value **property**. If you own something, you probably deserve it. The government should not be allowed to interfere with your property rights. If you own nothing, well. Hard luck to you. You probably don’t deserve it. Try to own more stuff in your next life.

Fukuyama announced the End of History in 1992. I’m announcing that political theory ended in 2016. Political science has nothing more to say about American elections that can’t be explained by assigning voters to Team Red or Team Blue. Even when Team Red reverses it’s policy on everything that the Red Team previously held dear, the Team Red voters change their opinion along with them. There’s a small number of people who think about the issues more deeply but not enough to influence the outcome of an election.

Read the book though. It’s cheap and short and easy to read. You might learn something or, more likely, it might encourage you to come up with your own taxonomy like I did.

A More Social Software Engineer

That Google memo business has got me thinking.

The author got himself into trouble for a bunch of reasons (too much logos and not enough pathos for a start) but I thought the core of his argument, restated to be more positive, could be appealing to many of the people who condemned it.

I’m going where angels fear to tread. Wish me luck!

Diversity is good for software companies. It helps us make better products.

I work at a little software startup just up the road from Google. Men are a minority at my company and I like it that way. It makes for a more pleasant work environment. I’ve worked on too many all-male teams and they tend [stereotype alert!] to be much more competitive and less collaborative. With women around, the men try — but sometimes fail — to be on their best behaviour.

Less selfishly, I think that our diversity makes us a better team. The women [stereotype alert!] really do see things that the men don’t see (and vice versa).

Men and Women are Different

Although there are differences in interests and traits between men and women at the group level, we should judge individuals as individuals, not as members of their group.

I don’t think either point is controversial, though the second might be hard to accept if your blood pressure is already high from reading the first. There’s a long history of people using statistics like this for ill purposes but I hope and expect that we can avoid the mistakes of the past with a little goodwill and a generous reading of the evidence.

There’s no need to posit genetic explanations for the differences. Cultural history can explain it adequately well.

There is chronic sex discrimination in the hiring process.

I have no doubt about this and we should certainly fix it. But bias in the hiring process and discrimination in the workplace are inadequate explanations for the gender imbalance in software engineering.

Creating awareness of implicit bias during the interview process is certainly helpful but it’s not enough to fix the whole of the problem. If we want to get more women into software development (we do! we do!), we need to look further.  We need to consider other solutions too.

Vive la différence!

Men are taller than women on average but, if I need tall people for a job, I would be foolish to go out to hire a bunch of men. I can just measure the candidates. If they are tall enough, I can hire them without considering their gender.

The analogy doesn’t quite work because an objective quality like height is easy to measure. Subjective qualities of the kind we might consider when hiring a software engineer can be harder to untangle from our biases and our stereotypes but we can try.

Once we’ve decided that our candidate is good enough (or tall enough) for the job, it’s not helpful to consider whether they have the right configuration of sex chromosomes (individuals, not groups remember?). But maybe it’s useful to think about group differences during the interview processes itself?

The evidence from psychology seems to suggest that women and men are quite different, on average, on certain traits like neuroticism and agreeableness even if there is considerable overlap between the sexes. Could those differences make the interview process more treacherous (on average) for women? I think it does, especially when you consider that most of the interviewers are men.

I don’t know of any work that looks at agreeableness as a liability in interviews but there was an interesting experiment recently at interview.io that tried to understand why women are less likely to succeed in interviews.

Make interviews more social?

interview.io is a website that gives software engineers an opportunity to practice interviewing in a safe environment. They noticed large differences in outcomes between male and female candidates.

we’ve amassed data from thousands of technical interviews, and in this blog, we routinely share some of the surprising stuff we’ve learned. In this post, I’ll talk about what happened when we built real-time voice masking to investigate the magnitude of bias against women in technical interviews. In short, we made men sound like women and women sound like men and looked at how that affected their interview performance. We also looked at what happened when women did poorly in interviews, how drastically that differed from men’s behavior, and why that difference matters for the thorny issue of the gender gap in tech.

http://blog.interviewing.io/we-built-voice-modulation-to-mask-gender-in-technical-interviews-heres-what-happened/

Here’s what they knew before the experiment:

Specifically, men were getting advanced to the next round 1.4 times more often than women.

They designed the experiment expecting to confirm a bias against female interviews but…

Contrary to what we expected (and probably contrary to what you expected as well!), masking gender had no effect on interview performance with respect to any of the scoring criteria (would advance to next round, technical ability, problem solving ability).

They didn’t really come up with a satisfactory explanation for the failure to uncover bias but an author can speculate…

Anecdotally, it seemed like women were leaving the platform a lot more often than men. So I ran the numbers.

What I learned was pretty shocking. As it happens, women leave interviewing.io roughly 7 times as often as men after they do badly in an interview.

If women drop out so much more during the interview process, might we see the same behaviour throughout a woman’s fledgling career in software engineering?

The author speculates some more…

If that’s true, then we need 3 times as many women studying computer science than men to get to the same number in our pipelines. Note that that’s 3 times more than men, not 3 times more than there are now.  … [snip]… to get to pipeline parity, we actually have to increase the number of women studying computer science by an entire order of magnitude.

Maybe the author of the Google memo was on to something when he wondered if neuroticism was significant when we look at the differences in the number of male versus female engineers? Just not in the way you thought.

Armed with this new information, perhaps we can change the way we interview engineers?

I’ve interviewed and been interviewed perhaps hundreds of times over my career. I enjoy being interviewed. But I can honestly say that my interview at Google was the least pleasant that I have ever endured. The interviewers were completely uninterested in my hopes and dreams and were actively hostile when I tried to engage them in conversation.

Maybe Google has got better at interviewing since then. If they haven’t, maybe they could try? No need to lower the bar on quality. They could start by acknowledging that there’s more to being a great software engineer than solving Big O problems.

Maybe we can make software engineering more social?

The author of the interviewing.io study suggested that we can’t fix the gender imbalance by better interviewing alone. Is there anything about software engineering itself that is off-putting to women?

Let’s first acknowledge that the predominance of men off-putting to women. Being the odd one out on a team is a high cultural hurdle to clear before we even think about differences in traits and interests. The evidence from other disciplines suggests that the hurdle is not insurmountable though.

Women now progress to PhDs as often as men in science, maths…

…and engineering and women now dominate health professions and life sciences.

If the life sciences can do it, maybe software engineering can too.

Software engineering has a poor image in the outside world. Most people think of a software engineer as a lonely introvert locked away in a a cubicle and typing code into a computer all day. Maybe Google is like that, but I haven’t worked in such an environment for over fifteen years.

Since I discovered Kent Beck’s crazy way of making software, I’ve come to value interactions and collaboration much more than the old process of turning specifications into code. I spend most of my day collaborating with other people.

If young women knew that software engineering was highly collaborative, might they be more inclined to give it a try?

Isn’t that just what Damore argued in his memo?

I read four or five rebuttals of the Google memo before I read the actual memo itself and I was quite surprised, when I finally read it, to find that the memo was neither as crazy nor as hostile to women as I had been led to believe.

Rather than refuting his points, most of the rebuttals were reiterating what Damore himself had said in his memo.

Now, granted, my argument is not exactly the same as Damore’s but it’s not far off. Damore would’ve done better to have saved his rant about liberal bias at Google for another day. And the rant about extra support for women and minorities would have sounded better if he had shouted it at the clouds.

He got a lot of things right though.

The psychologists at the Heterodox Academy looked at the research.

In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability.

Population differences in interest may be part of the explanation for why there are fewer women in the applicant pool, but the women who choose to enter the pool are just as capable as the larger number of men in the pool. This conclusion does not deny that various forms of bias, harassment, and discouragement exist and contribute to outcome disparities, nor does it imply that the differences in interest are biologically fixed and cannot be changed in future generations.

If our three conclusions are correct then Damore was drawing attention to empirical findings that seem to have been previously unknown or ignored at Google, and which might be helpful to the company as it tries to improve its diversity policies and outcomes.

The Heterodox Academy

Most of the first round of criticism missed his point entirely. Gizmodo called it an anti-diversity screed .

Gizmodo:

Damore:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic summarizes the misleading coverage well.

To me, the Google memo is an outlier—I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.

Casually perusing “anti-diversity” headlines without reading the memo might mislead readers into thinking a Google employee had assigned a negative value to gender diversity, when in fact he assigned a positive value to gender diversity, but objected to some ways it was being pursued and tradeoffs others would make to maximize it.

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/the-most-common-error-in-coverage-of-the-google-memo/536181/

Sabine Hossenfelder at Nautilus wonders about the wider implications of his memo.

Damore’s memo strikes me as a pamphlet produced by a well-meaning, but also utterly clueless, young white man. He didn’t deserve to get fired for this. He deserved maybe a slap on the too-quickly typing fingers. But in his world, asking for discussion is apparently enough to get fired.

If you remove biology from Damore’s notion of “population level differences”, his critique is still nearly as powerful. And his question is still valid: “If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.”

Damore was fired, basically, for making a well-meant, if amateurish, attempt at institutional design, based on woefully incomplete information he picked from published research studies. But however imperfect his attempt, he was fired, in short, for thinking on his own. And what example does that set?

http://nautil.us/blog/outraged-by-the-google-diversity-memo-i-want-you-to-think-about-it

 

Bring your daughters to work. And keep them there.

After the last round of “Silicon Valley Is Sexist” outrage, I asked each of the very smart, very capable women of my acquaintance why they did not become software engineers. They all answered with some variant of “I can’t think of anything less appealing than the idea of working with a machine all day” or “I would hate to work in an environment where I was the only woman”.

I also asked all my male friends why their daughters were not interested in computer science. They all sighed and said “I just can’t get her interested”.

Only 18% of CS graduates are women. If we want to attract more women into software engineering (and we should – it’s a fun job; very social and pays well!), we have to find a way to get our daughters interested. We are not gonna fix the whole industry by making interviewers less biased.

 

 

The Dream Watchers

I’ve had an idea that answers the question “What are dreams for?” floating around in my head for several years now. Whenever there’s an article or a podcast about sleep, I listen to hear whether anyone else has had the same idea. This meaning of life dialog comes close.

Bob Wright asks the classic question “Why do we dream?” and Robert Stickgold gives a long and fascinating answer about the role of dreams in information processing and its relationship to forming memories.

There are studies demonstrating that, if you are given a cognitively complex task to perform and then tested on that task three hours later, your performance will degrade. However, if you have a nap during the three hour interval, you’ll perform even better after the interval than you did when you first attempted it.

A more elaborate version of the study has the researchers waking the subjects from their naps at periodic intervals and asking them what they were dreaming about. The subjects who reported dreaming about the task, performed better at the task when they were retested than those who didn’t. Robert Stickgold’s conclusion is that (one reason) we dream is to help form associations between events. I think this is wrong and it’s got to do with a muddle over the meaning of the word consciousness.

Bob Wright:

When you wake up in the middle of the dream it seems as if there was consciousness of the dream but if you didn’t wake up, you would never be able to recall it. It’s as though consciousness has to be a part of the information processing infrastructure.

It seems completely obvious to me that memory and awareness are separate functions in the brain and Robert corrects Bob’s error…

You are conflating a couple of things. One has to do with remembering your dreams when you wake up.

…but then goes on to make a similar error himself. Let’s deal with Bob’s error first.

Arguments about the meaning of consciousness have a long and storied history and I expect that a lot of the controversy arises because it’s not obvious what the term consciousness refers to. Is it the difference between being asleep and awake? Is it something to do with recognizing yourself in the mirror? Is it that ineffable quality of experiencing the colour red? I think it’s none of those things and all of the mystery goes away if we stop using the word consciousness and talk about awareness or attention instead.

In a previous dialog with David Chalmers, Bob tried to explain the distinction between perceiving the color red and having the experience of perceiving the color red. That distinction, in a nutshell, according to Bob, is what consciousness is all about and is what separates us from the lower animals and is why machines will never be conscious. But, for the life of me, I struggle to understand this distinction and wonder whether or not I am actually conscious myself.

The real explanation is simpler.

I can perceive the colour red and I can be aware (or not) that I have perceived the colour red and I can have a memory (or not) that I was aware that I have perceived the colour red and those are all separate ideas. It’s well established that we can perceive things without being aware of it—this is the basis for subliminal messaging—but it’s less obvious that we can be aware of something but to then immediately forget that we were aware of it. At least, it’s less obvious to Bob.

When you think about it, our brains must have a finite memory and to make sure we remember the good stuff we have to throw away a lot of the bad stuff and our brains continuously make decisions about which is which. This brings us back to Robert’s explanation of what dreams are for.

Dreams, according to Robert, are for making associations between events and for fitting them into an information schema in our memories so that we can recall them at appropriate times in the future. According to this explanation, our dreams rummage through the day’s events and decide which are significant and which are not (paying special attention to the emotional valence of an event, which is why dreams are often emotionally disturbing). I think this is close, but wrong.

 

Michael Gazzaniga discovered through experiments on patients with split-brains, that is patients who have had the connection between the left and right halves of their brains severed, that different areas of the brain have different responsibilities. You can think of these areas as specialized modules.

From a New York Times article,

In the decades to follow, brain scientists found that the left brain-right brain split is only the most obvious division of labor; in fact, the brain contains a swarm of specialized modules, each performing a special skill — calculating a distance, parsing a voice tone — and all of them running at the same time, communicating in widely distributed networks, often across hemispheres.

In short, the brain sustains a sense of unity not just in the presence of its left and right co-pilots. It does so amid a cacophony of competing voices, the neural equivalent of open outcry at the Chicago Board of Trade.

In one experiment, Dr. Gazzaniga showed different pictures to different halves of the brain.

The man’s left hemisphere saw a chicken claw; his right saw a snow scene. Afterward, the man chose the most appropriate matches from an array of pictures visible to both hemispheres. He chose a chicken to go with the claw, and a shovel to go with the snow. So far, so good.

But then Dr. Gazzaniga asked him why he chose those items — and struck gold. The man had a ready answer for one choice: The chicken goes with the claw. His left hemisphere had seen the claw, after all. Yet it had not seen the picture of the snow, only the shovel. Looking down at the picture of the shovel, the man said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

The left hemisphere was just concocting an explanation, Dr. Gazzaniga said.

In this multi-module model of how the brain works, there is a module for recognizing faces, another for experiencing emotions and yet another for  reasoning. But most importantly for our purpose here, there is a module whose job it is to make up stories about what we’ve just seen. Dr Gazzaniga calls it the interpreter or narrator.

The brain’s cacophony of competing voices feels coherent because some module or network somewhere in the left hemisphere is providing a running narration.

Back to the question of what dreams are for. Putting together what we’ve learned from Dr. Gazzaniga and Professor Stickgold, my answer is: nothing at all.

I imagine that there’s a module somewhere in our brain that sorts through our memories, categorizing them and throwing away the useless ones. As this memory sorter looks at each memory, it comes to the attention of the interpreter module which makes up a story about it.

So, imagine your memory sorter going through your recent memories one by one:

  • Big presentation at work (file it under anxiety).
  • Beautiful lady said ‘Hi’ on the bus (file it under lust).
  •  Taxes are due next week (file it under dread).

These three things are unrelated except for the fact that they were memories to be filed away. Meanwhile, the poor old interpreter is watching these memories as they scroll by and feels compelled to make up a story about them and suddenly you are back in 10th grade giving a presentation to your class in double history and, when the cute girl in the front row smiles, you realize you are naked and run away screaming.

There’s no rational meaning to the dream (like President Trump, the storyteller’s gonna tell stories whether they are true or not) and if you happen to wake up at the right moment, the story itself becomes a memory. And that’s where dreams come from.

Dreams are not for anything. They are a weird side-effect of your memory-processing system being watched by your story-telling system. They have no function and no predictive power. Just enjoy them.

 

Dream Photos from Flickr (Creative Commons)

The Curse of the Worthy Movies

When Netflix first started their DVD service, we did what everyone else did. We loaded up our queue with classic movies from the old days and started watching stuff we’d always wanted to see but never gotten around to. Then Netflix recommended “more like this” and the movies we watched got worthier and Worthier and WORTHIER. Before we knew it our queue was full to the brim with Iranian Tragedies and French Kitchen Sink Dramas. It got to be too much and we quit Netflix.

You have to pace yourself.

It’s great to watch the occasional worthy movie—those films are on everyone’s Top Ten list for a reason—but you have to mix in some fun stuff too or it starts to feel too much like hard work.

In my ideal movie club we’d think about movies according to two attributes.

  1. Are they fun?
  2. Are they good quality?

We can plot our movies on a chart with four quadrants. As always, it’s best to be high on the right.

Click chart to embiggen.

Movies that are high on the left are the ones you find on famous people’s top ten lists. It’s Citizen Kane & Battleship Potemkin. It’s Metropolis and The Bicycle Thief. Anything by Shakespeare or Kurosawa.

You can tell you’ve watched a Worthy Movie if, when you get to the end you say “I’m glad I watched that, but I hope I never have to watch it again.”

Watching your worthy movies is something you should do occasionally, like having a colonoscopy, and you should feel good about yourself afterwards. But it’s no fun spending all your time with a tube stuffed up your arse.

The bottom right has your fun movies that you watch when you don’t want to think too much. They are just good, escapist mind fluff. Think Clint Eastwood and an Orang Utan or gym teachers who howl when you take them to the dirty laundry room. Sex with Pies.

Mindless Enjoyment is a fine thing once in a while but too much of it and you’ll rot your brain.

There’s only one reason to watch a movie in the bottom left quadrant. Remember when you watched a whole bunch of movies that you thought were hilarious when you were twelve. You should watch them one more time as an adult, just to remind yourself how far you’ve come. Farting cowboys are not as funny as they used to be.

There are so many classic movies up in that top right quadrant that you might wonder why anyone would watch anything else—especially in a movie club whose charter requires them to watch classic movies of yesteryear.

There are two reasons why that doesn’t happen.

First reason: If everyone follows the same algorithm (a worthy movie now again is a good thing), then we’ll all have a worthy movie in mind. We’ll all have to watch everyone’s worthy movie before we get to the good stuff and, in a movie club with 100 members, if we each nominate one worthy movie we should start watching classic movies in about two years.

The other good reason to watch a worthy movie—and we’ve all made this mistake—is to ask someone else for advice. You know, that brother-in-law who loves movies, or the co-worker who went to film school. Or maybe there’s some famous film critic online. Ask any of these people what their favourite movie is and they’re gonna pick a worthy movie. Their reputation depends on it.

They won’t tell you that the movie is no fun of course. After you complain that you just sat through 3 hours of Egyptian Brass Bands wandering around the Israeli desert or Japanese business men held captive in some sand dunes, they’ll say “Oh yeah. It was a bit heavy going in places…” or “Right. It’s a long time since I’ve watched that one.” It was probably an honest mistake but you are not getting those three hours back. Trouble is, we all have a brother-in-law like that and they all want to recommend a worthy movie.

Anyway, so I’ve started a movie club and we got off to a great start. One mindless fun movie to get us started then a couple of classics that are among the top-rightiest movies that have ever been made.

We’re currently lost in The Worthy Zone but I have high hopes that we’ll get back to the top right soon, though we may have to make a slight detour into oh-my-god-no-land before we get there.

This week’s choices fill the quadrants completely. I hope we choose well.

Come join us, why don’t you?

http://www.letswatchamovie.com/

Parlour Games

I read a novel a long time ago where the characters played a parlour game at a dinner party.  Each player took it in turns to name a prominent work of literature that they had never read and they scored a point for every other person who had read the book. The protagonist won with ‘Hamlet’ and was fired the next day from his teaching position in the English department of a university.

We tried a similar game at work today.

“Which prominent claim of mainstream science do you think is bullshit?”

To reduce the chances of being fired tomorrow, let me first acknowledge that I know I am a crank with this claim. I don’t think I’m as far into the rough as climate science deniers or anti-vaxxers but I know that I am certainly off the fairway. But still…I think the mainstreamers are fooling themselves.

My understanding is that mainstream nutrition science would claim that, when you lose a lot of weight, your body somehow adapts to its new weight and requires less energy. Therefore it gets harder and harder to lose weight because your body has some kind of memory of what it used to weigh and tries to get back to that. This is why most diets don’t work (according to mainstream science).

A stronger version of the theory claims that if you gain weight again after losing a lot, it gets harder to lose weight the second time around because the body “remembers” what it used to weigh and tries to get back to it.

I think this is bullshit because it either requires that my body either a) violate the laws of thermodynamics or b) it requires me to believe that my body chooses to run inefficiently—and burns energy promiscuously—until the day that you start getting somewhere with your diet. On that day, your body switches to “efficient” mode and decides to use less energy.

Sounds fishy to me.

I’m an acolyte of John Walker’s Hacker’s Diet. Mr Walker says it’s useful to think of your body like a closed system where calories come in as food and drink and calories are burned or otherwise exit your system as “solids”.

Here’s Mr Walker:

when it comes to gaining and losing weight, the human body is remarkably akin to a rubber bag. Fad diets and gimmick nutritional plans obscure this simple yet essential fact of weight control: if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight; if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight.
Here’s your body, reduced to a rubber bag.

To determine whether you’ll gain or lose weight—whether the rubber bag will grow or shrink—just take the number of calories in, what you eat, and subtract the number of calories you burn. If the number’s positive, you’re eating too much and the excess calories will stay in the bag; you’ll gain weight. If the result is negative, you’re burning more calories than you’re putting in; the bag will shrink as the reserves stored in fat cells are drawn down to meet the body’s energy needs; you’ll lose weight.

I acknowledge that your body might adapt to starvation conditions by trying to conserve energy in the short term but, in the long term,

calorie excess = calories in – calories out

and the excess is turned into fat at the rate of 3500 kCal/lb.

It is true that it’s harder to lose weight when you are very hungry—but that’s a failure of will, not a suspension of the laws of thermodynamics.

It’s also true (probably) that losing too much weight too quickly can backfire but, again, that’s because you weaken your will, not because your body mysteriously decides to run more efficiently.

It might sound like I am blaming people who fail to lose weight for a lack of will and that’s exactly what I am doing but… take comfort! According to Schopenhauer, it’s not your fault!

Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

The secret to losing weight is to use Jiu-Jitsu on your will. Don’t do anything to cause your will to falter (like losing weight too fast) and don’t keep the beer or the Doritos within easy reach for those inevitable occasions when your will WILL fail.

As I said, this is all crank science and you shouldn’t believe a word of it. Mainstream nutrition science says that when your body starts to lose weight, it gets more efficient so it gets harder to lose weight. I say “Bullshit!”

In next week’s edition edition of Crank Science, we’ll explore whether it’s more likely that 90% of the universe is made of the mysterious and undetectable “dark matter” or that astrophysicists didn’t calibrate their instruments right.

POSTSCRIPT

Lots of feedback in the comments, so I’ll clarify my argument a little.

I’m well aware that smaller bodies require less energy than larger ones. I don’t dispute that.

I’m also aware that if you cut your calorie intake below a certain level, your body goes into starvation mode and burns less energy as it tries to keep you alive. I don’t know the exact details of how this works but it sounds plausible and I don’t dispute it.

I was not previously aware of The Biggest Loser thing but I just read an article about it in the New York Times. This is exactly what I am talking about:

“you can’t get away from a basic biological reality,” said Dr. Schwartz, who was not involved in the study. “As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.”

I’ve heard this many times from many different people who accept it as truth.

More from the article:

“But what obesity research has consistently shown is that dieters are at the mercy of their own bodies, which muster hormones and an altered metabolic rate to pull them back to their old weights, whether that is hundreds of pounds more or that extra 10 or 15 that many people are trying to keep off.”

A diagram makes the point more forcefully.

The idea that your body just decides to operate more efficiently when you have lost a lot of weight sounds completely implausible to me but, I have been told on many occasions, this is what the science says.

Dr. Rosenbaum agreed. “The difficulty in keeping weight off reflects biology, not a pathological lack of willpower affecting two-thirds of the U.S.A.,” he said.

The last part of the article shares a more likely explanation.

Slower metabolisms were not the only reason the contestants regained weight, though. They constantly battled hunger, cravings and binges. The investigators found at least one reason: plummeting levels of leptin. The contestants started out with normal levels of leptin. By the season’s finale, they had almost no leptin at all, which would have made them ravenous all the time. As their weight returned, their leptin levels drifted up again, but only to about half of what they had been when the season began, the researchers found, thus helping to explain their urges to eat.

I can completely understand that it’s harder to resist food when you’ve just lost a lot of weight. This is what I was alluding to when I quoted Schopenhauer above and what I mean when I say that losing weight is a matter of will: Hunger hormones sabotage your will; they don’t change the laws of thermodynamics.

A final word about Mr Cahill. This is just nuts:

Before the show began, the contestants underwent medical tests to be sure they could endure the rigorous schedule that lay ahead. And rigorous it was. Sequestered on the “Biggest Loser” ranch with the other contestants, Mr. Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to a calorie tracker the show gave him.

Mr. Cahill set a goal of a 3,500-caloric deficit per day. The idea was to lose a pound a day.

There’s no way you can sustain that kind of exercise regime. I am comfortable with a 250 calories per day deficit. A good friend of mine has a 1000 cal/day deficit that he has sustained for months. 2,500 calories per day is madness and it’s no surprise to me that:

Mr. Cahill knew he could not maintain his finale weight of 191 pounds. He was so mentally and physically exhausted he barely moved for two weeks after his publicity tour ended. But he had started a new career giving motivational speeches as the biggest loser ever, and for the next four years, he managed to keep his weight below 255 pounds by exercising two to three hours a day. But two years ago, he went back to his job as a surveyor, and the pounds started coming back.

And here’s my argument in a nutshell:

His slow metabolism is part of the problem, and so are his food cravings. He opens a bag of chips, thinking he will have just a few. “I’d eat five bites. Then I’d black out and eat the whole bag of chips and say, ‘What did I do?’”

Religious Bathwater

I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.

Religion for Atheists (cover)

De Botton’s big idea is that the least interesting thing about religion is whether its claims about God are true. We should be more interested in the fact that religions have had a couple of thousand years of experience of understanding and guiding human nature through art, ceremony, and moral codes and through the social interactions that come from sitting together for a couple of hours every Sunday. Religions also make a big deal of celebrating life’s important events and the passage of the seasons.

It’s true that we don’t actually need religion for any of those things. Secular art can be beautiful; we can get our social interactions at a football match on a Saturday afternoon or at quiz night at the pub every Tuesday and there are plenty of non-religious ways to celebrate the seasons. The trouble is: we don’t though. Not really.

Virgin at Prayer after SassoferatoSecular artists broke free of the shackles of religion in the 19th century but when was the last time you were truly inspired by a painting? Was it painted in the last 50 years? I didn’t think so. In theory, there is plenty of secular inspiration to be had—De Botton cites Jane Austin and Shakespeare—but they don’t really bring us together the way the Bible or the Ramayana used to.

 

Earlier this month, I stumbled across an interview with Alain de Botton on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast where he expands on some of these ideas.

On Being - The School of Life

De Botton observes that much of what we think of as typically Christian was originally pilfered from pagan culture—not just Christmas trees and Saturnalia; philosophy and ethics too—and it’s about time we took some of it back.

I suppose what I’m arguing for is a kind of reverse colonization. In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I’m arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the mount_athosMediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them.

 

Alain de Botton founded The School of Life to lead this recolonisation effort.

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm, and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.

school-of-life

From On Being.

I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment. We get so stressed. We got so confused. We get so overwhelmed by the kind of people around us, what’s in our diaries, what’s going on right now. And then once a week or more or less, you can go to a religious institution, be it a mosque, a synagogue or church, and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

At The School of Life’s non-church, they hear sermons, sing hymns and enjoy a nice cup of tea afterwards.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I’ve read a journalist account of coming to “The School of Life” and it’s really interesting. They described it as a place of play and whimsy and big talk, that it’s warm and stylish and serious. I mean, I have to say, I watched a bit online and I watched a sermon that you gave — and that is a word you use, that some of these talks are called sermons. The video I watched, there were a lot of people there that looked like people of all ages and a lot of young people and they were singing “Jerusalem,” this great classic hymn which is at once deeply Christian and deeply British.

MR. DE BOTTON: We could say what on earth is going on?
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.
MR. DE BOTTON: But, of course, you know, when you talk to people who don’t believe, one of the things they often say is, “Such a pity because the music’s fantastic and the singing is great and I love to have a cup of tea at the end and, you know, chat to neighbors and all the rest of it.”

I have to confess that Jerusalem is one of my favourite songs and I can barely make it through the third verse because I get choked up at the bit about bows of burning gold and arrows of desire. It’s an amazing song.

I think it’s important to sing the original words to sacred hymns like Jerusalem and to not bowdlerise away the religious bits. How profound to wonder, as Blake did, “Was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?”. And how inspiring to pledge to build a new Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land?  Would Odysseus’s adventure be as compelling without the mythical creatures? Would Frodo’s tale be so memorable without the immortality of the Elves? Christian mythology has some great stories too. Let’s keep them and learn from them.

jerusalem

The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings are both moral tales but we don’t really talk about morality in public any more and the hole left by the absence of morality has been filled by commercialism. De Botton would have us reclaim that space too.

So, you know, we don’t live in the kind of completely neutral public space that’s often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things, and they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help.

For de Botton, morality is about how we interact with other people and how we deal with the difficult challenges that life confronts us with. We should make more of an effort to learn about life’s lessons together.

MR. DE BOTTON: You know, the modern secular education system is based on the idea that life is essentially a kind of fairly easy process to get through, so you need to teach people certain skills for the modern economy like accountancy and microbiology and all this sort of stuff. But what you don’t need to teach them is how to live because how to live is fairly obvious. All you need to do is, you know, separate yourself from your parents and bring up some children, maybe, and find a job you like, deal with mortality …

MS. TIPPETT: All those really easy things [laugh].

MR. DE BOTTON: All those really easy things, and then confront your own death and it’s just really simple. You don’t need guidance.

So you’re supposed to know this stuff and my question is, how? I don’t know this stuff. And the fascinating starting point of religions, all religions, is they start from the idea that we don’t know how to live and so that’s why they need to teach us wisdom.

Much of the dissonance between religion and secular life comes about because religion has hijacked many of the words that we use to talk about morality and meaning. Words like soul, spirit and sin are rarely used in a secular setting. But the words are important and should still be significant even if put aside their supernatural meanings.

MS. TIPPETT: So I often make a statement which I think is somewhat controversial that atheists have spiritual lives too. Then it ends up depending on how you’re defining spiritual, but would you say it that way, do atheists have spiritual lives?
MR. DE BOTTON: Of course, I mean …
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have a spiritual life?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, if you — it’s like the word soul, you know. Do atheists have souls? In the strict religious sense, no, but in the loose sense, yes. You’ll know what we mean. If you meet somebody and you say, you know, that person he was quite interesting but he seemed to lack soul or she doesn’t seem to have much soul.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. We have secular ways of using this word.
MR. DE BOTTON: Right. But I think when we use it that way, we’re onto something rather useful. It means an illusion to the deeper sides of a human being, the side that’s going to confront death, the side that’s there at moments of love, the side that is interested in questions of kind of ultimate meaning and direction, the serious stuff, the side of us that kind of we confront at 3:00 a.m. when we’re awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with the in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the kind of busyness of the day. I think that’s the soul bit and, of course, it exists in nonbelievers as much as in believers. Similarly, atheists have amazing moments under the stars as well when atheists look up and see the galaxies and contemplate the sheer nothingness, puniness of humans in the cosmos. It’s just how we choose to interpret it. We don’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. So when I look at the cosmos, I’m not forced to then make the next step, which is to say there must be something out there. Look, there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars, we may differ about, you know, what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.

justrememberthatyourestandingonaplanetthatsevolving_8a5e63b457bb2df93d8fdcb65ff4a87a